Updated: Jun 4
The long summer after I finished my secondary school exams, the summer I waited to go to university, I would spend the evenings in the parks around the Thames with a collection of friends from the various schools about the city; and, afterwards, we would—as teenagers around the world do—slip into those pubs where the barman turned a blind eye to drinkers a year shy of the legal limit. It was about this time that I first met a girl who had decided she was gay, she was LGBT. “Well, what do you make of that?” my old friend from primary school asked me as I cycled beside him on the way back from the pub one night. I think I stuttered somewhat back and forth, but, in general, I formed an opinion that it was good, in a social sense; except that I wanted to sleep with her, so it was bad—in a personal sense.
Conservatives have, for so long as I can recall, said that the universities turn youngsters into left-wing activists. The universities “brainwash” students into “insane woke ideas”; it is here that respectable conservative children are turned into rabid Social Justice Warriors, with pink hair and a thirst to burn all books written by straight white men—supporters of LGBT, or worse. Yet, as I noticed that summer before I went to university, my peers had a great many left-wing views—I myself was an avowed Marxist—and yet none were in the clutch of a fanatical university lecturer, mouth frothed with hatred for the system. My crush, in fact, within her second year at university, shed her lesbianism and LGBT affiliation and fell in with the Mormons—quite an indoctrination, indeed. Meanwhile, my faith in Marxism evaporated as I read Orwell and Arendt in depth. If the universities exist to indoctrinate students, it is not so from my personal experience. Granted, this was about fifteen years ago; but, even at the time, I was conscious that conservatives were certain that the universities were poisoned—just factories designed to create little Lenins.
In my second year at university, I curled up into a depression and flunked the year. I had been drilled that a degree was essential, but to flunk a year rendered the overall classification so low it would be useless; so, I switched to African Studies—a clean slate—on the grounds that it would be extremely easy and passable, even without an exit from bed more than five hours a day; and this was true, but it was by no means an indoctrination factory at all, despite a course title certain to set conservative teeth on edge—in fact, I was far to the left of my lecturers. When we studied the Atlantic slave trade the framework was as follows: the slave trade existed before Europeans arrived in Africa; the tribes warred, captured slaves, and traded those slaves between each other; the European arrival increased demand, but the Europeans were not the cause of the slave trade. It was hardly a narrative of white guilt; in fact, that idea was not floated at all.
I was the one given a pitying comment by a lecturer for my use of 1960s Marxist historiography about the Atlantic trade, it was out of date; and it had not been replaced by a more leftist approach, either. Perhaps it was because the anthropologists in the department had spent decades with remote tribes in Africa—or were Boers—but there was little sentimentalism and a strong streak of realism in the course. The course itself had a small intake, about half the students were idealistic Evangelical girls in preparation to spread the light of the Gospel to Africa; and there was also a smattering of diaspora Africans interested in their origins—not a Malcolm X in sight, though. One of my fellow students, a devoted Evangelical Christian, later went to volunteer in Africa at an orphanage. On her first day the cute little black baby she held sank its teeth into her breast; and this is the story of all white women in Africa, ever.
Anyone I met at university with left-wing views—from diehard Stalinists to wishy-washy greens—had formed their views before they arrived at the university; perhaps in that long summer after school ended. And, I would add, these were all children of the middle to the upper-middle classes, by no means indoctrinated at school—especially at the private schools, where “political correctness” was routinely sneered at and denounced. Now, I have no doubt that there are probably a clutch of departments—perhaps, as Curtis Yarvin suggests, at very influential universities like Harvard—that teach the type of ideology known as “political correctness” or “wokeness”; the sort of stereotypical protest against phallologocentrism and the white male gaze—and these do indoctrinate and enjoy an outsized reach, a determined minority being able to project force over a wide area; especially with a degree from an elite institution. But this does not explain how my contemporaries ended up with left-wing views before university and how, if anything, they lost those views at university, as I did. After all, the left in the 1960s spoke of a “long march through the institutions”; they may have captured the institutions eventually, but the ideas obviously started on the outside.
The answer lies in two sources: the media and the intellectuals. The media lives by its ability to whip up a mob with gossip (lies or half-truths)—it is an envy machine; and so it inclines, by nature, to the left. However, journalists are stupid and lazy—far too stupid to develop phallologocentrism autonomously. Who does this? The intellectuals; it is the intellectuals that give the high-status patina to novel leftist ideas. The intellectual is related to, but not synonymous with, the scholar—hence the confusion as regards the universities and the left.
The best example of the intellectual type is the most successful left-wing thinker in history: Karl Marx. Yes, Marx had a doctorate; but Marx did not work for a university, he was not welcome in the university system in any country—and for decades his ideas were kept out of the universities by scholars, being seen as “crank”. Marx lived on handouts from Engels and occasional journalism; and, unlike the scholars, preoccupied himself with public committees, manifestos, and organisation. The intellectual belongs to that group Edmund Burke identified in the 18th century as “the scribblers”, the grandfathers and fathers of the French Revolution: the band of freelance writers and thinkers who occupy a precarious position somewhere between scholar and journalist.
Burke remains correct: the nursery of left-wing ideas is the intellectual, his home is on what used to be called Grub Street in Britain—a vile alley of ne’er-do-wells with a penchant for books. The intellectual feeds the media—always on the hunt for novelty—theories that are picked up and supported by the public, and this is how the young are indoctrinated; eventually, as with Marxism, these ideas become established in the universities, especially when liberalism has overturned religious influence within higher education; and so the universities come to support part of the ideological loop that neoreactionaries call “the Cathedral”. It does not, however, start at the universities.
There were, as Burke observed, intellectuals before Marx; he is just an ideal type. Arguably, Plato and Socrates, with their abstract ideas for social reform and gadfly natures were the first intellectuals—Aristotle with his empirical moderation of those ideas and partial rebuttals was the first conservative; his cry of “Facts and logic!“ echoes around YouTube to this day. Of the modern variety, Tom Paine and Voltaire are two particular examples still worshipped by intellectuals today; people still post their witty remarks online, as if the quotes settle anything. The mind virus created by an intellectual often has a long half-life. This is, in part, because the intellectual uses rhetoric and rhetorical tricks do not change very much, because man does not change very much. A “hitchslap” courtesy Christopher Hitchens in 2009 against a Catholic priest shared millions of times on YouTube is not so different from Voltaire’s quips; on close examination, the arguments fall apart, but the rhetoric is always just good enough to get a laugh and make the audience feel smug superiority.
Intellectuals tend, as Nietzsche intuited, towards egalitarianism because they are resentful of the more established and powerful groups: aristocrats, businessmen, scholars, and so on. The realm of ideas is weak and ephemeral; the intellectual is a neurotic, a Woody Allen, on the look out for validation from the mob. It is much more than just Marxism, postmodernism, or progressivism; it is a mode of egalitarian rhetoric that is recycled again and again. The social and political ideas of Bertrand Russell, H.G. Wells, Marx, and Chomsky are all about as bad as each other, and all contain the same rhetoric and egalitarian thrust; and this is why it is a mistake to reduce leftism to “neo-Marxism” or “postmodernism”.
Wittgenstein observed that Bertrand Russell had two sets of books: his books about mathematics and logic, essential for anyone interested in the topics; and his books about politics and society, books that should be avoided at all costs. Russell, Žižek, Chomsky; yes, all these men are academics: yet the thrust of their political and social thought is extracurricular. Russell was not appointed to Cambridge to teach and write about politics and social theory; and his behaviour, his passive resistance to the First World War, was disruptive of his academic career from the first. His published political and social work was—more or less—a sideline for status and vanity.
Žižek—a popular entertainer—received a very cool reception from the academic world when he started to publish his popular works; partly this was due to envy, but it was also because the scholarly type writes for a small audience with autistic rigour: Žižek’s antics as the “rockstar of theory” offended the decorum of the academic world. It is an introvert world and Žižek’s behaviour seemed vulgar to it. The intellectual might draw a salary and teach at university, but their work as an intellectual is often a labour of love—or vanity—on the side. Worse, for some, their intellectual endeavours are a moral campaign to improve mankind; by far the most dangerous motivation for any human action. Whatever the motivation, the point is that the intellectual uses his intelligence in a way that is orientated toward the values and status of the social world; and he almost always wants to alter those values and status relationships. He is, therefore, acutely vulnerable to social pressure and perception in his pursuit of “truth”.
The difference between the scholar and the intellectual is neatly illustrated by the figure of Jordan Peterson; he is more the scholar: as an introvert with a penchant for accuracy, his rise to superstar levels of fame was obviously stressful and probably contributed to his ill health and collapse; the true intellectual, the Tom Paine or Voltaire type, lives for his moment of intellectual celebrity—they are relatively extrovert, as with journalists; and if everything they say turns out not to be exactly true, well, tant pis.
Five hundred years ago, the academic would have been a monk, shut up in their monastery; the artist would have been a mystic, perhaps on a journey in the desert to see visions; and the intellectual would have been…a priest. The intellectual is the type who knows the Bible and can spin a sermon from it to explain the world today; some of these sermons are quite elaborate, but they all have a popular tang absent from theology. Indeed, it is often the case that intellectuals will come from families of priests. Marx had a rabbi in his family; Nietzsche, another man outside the academy, was the son of a preacher. The compulsion to preach must be in the blood for these men; and in a largely secular society, after a university education, they begin to preach in a new mode. There is no doubt that every one of Nietzsche’s books must have been written with the pulpit in mind; his aphorisms are reminders of how to live—and three hundred years before, each one would have been about how to live a Christian life.
Three men who made the 20th century: Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche. They were all intellectuals, they were all outside the university system and all were really, at base, after a religious revival. Freud’s introductory lectures on psychoanalysis read as if he has prepared a cult; and his cult has many sects even today, from Scientology to Lacanian psychoanalysis. His errant son, C.G. Jung, remains an exception—unpopular to this day with intellectuals—because his thought was grounded in myths and legends; particularly those of the old religions. This meant that it could not be easily adapted for political purposes and had little scope for status competition; further, it was, in a sense, not novel—it worked with material that was already there. Psychoanalysis, by contrast, provided many opportunities for splits and novelty, each supposedly more “scientific” than the last—just as Marxism did.
Jean-Paul Sartre illustrates the ambitions of the intellectual quite nicely in the last chapters of his opus Being and Nothingness (1943); he ends with a sketch for a system of psychoanalysis based on his philosophical ideas. At the time, psychoanalysis was a huge movement—already splintered into different sects—and I can almost see Sartre at his desk, Gauloises in hand, as he tapped out the last pages: his ambition, to start existential psychoanalysis—a whole cult, just like Freud’s, but dedicated to the memory of Sartre. He could picture Frenchwomen queued up for the existential analyst in his office—the long articles in Le Monde about the new talking cure. Sadly for Sartre, it did not catch on; his ideas, a forest fire in their day, cannot even be called embers in the new millennium.
All this is not to say that intellectuals do not speak truths; no movement can function without at least some relation to reality. As Marx observed, factory work alienates man from his nature—we are not intended as spiritual beings, nor evolved biologically, to stand in a factory and repeat the same task for hours and hours; Freud was right to observe that people repress sexual and violent thoughts, sometimes this repression damages them; and Nietzsche was correct about many facets of human psychology. Yet the intellectual always births a comprehensive worldview—a Marxist, Freudian, or Nietzschean take is possible on everything from baby food to yachts; and in this comprehensive, pseudo-religious aspect, the products of the intellectuals go awry.
The rise of the intellectual goes hand-in-hand with Protestantism because the Reformation created a space for the intellectual, the intellectual entrepreneur. The Catholic Church had a centralised doctrinal hierarchy, with knowledge of the Bible and interpretations of the Bible purely within the hierarchical structure. Protestantism blew this open: every man who could read could now make his own interpretation of the Bible; and this caused excitement—it eventually killed Christianity, overwhelmed by everyone’s “hot takes” on the Bible; it was all too much to sustain a coherent faith. Aided by the advent of the printing press, the embryonic intellectuals began to compete with each other; they raised mass support; they learned rhetorical tricks—and so began the wars of religion.
Protestantism is more like Islam and Judaism than Catholicism in that it has no central authority. In Islam and Judaism, imams and rabbis have long developed their own takes on the religion without a pope to stop them. These intellectual entrepreneurs competed with each other for congregations; and the Protestants did the same, late Christian arrivals to the market. As progressives often say, “You can’t generalise about Islam. This imam says there’s no need to wear the veil at all and women can drive cars and work.” Of course, it is just same as Protestantism—Ian Paisley excoriated the papists and homosexuals and so on; but in Islington there will be liberal vicar who blesses gay marriages and works closely with his Catholic counterpart. The intellectuals—especially those who are atheists, progressives, and “New Atheists”—are usually just Protestants who kept on going, as Yarvin observes, and live within the functional bounds of iconoclastic Protestant Christianity, though they have removed the last icon: God. This explains the fanatical nature of “woke” or progressive views; they are Protestants—Puritans—on the march against icons.
The phenomenon of the intellectual entrepreneur also explains the stereotype of the New York Jewish intellectual, long blamed for all America’s woes by the most radical sections of the right. The figures of Woody Allen, Susan Sontag, Allan Bloom, Irving Kristol, and so on (and on) are all too familiar in this regard; the type is real, no doubt. Secular Jews often become intellectuals because, once cut adrift from Judaism as a religion, they cannot help but continue what is in the blood; the desire to be a rabbi, to interpret and teach. Marx is, of course, the signal example of this case. Blessed with high intelligence on average, with a verbal tilt, the secular Jews are in a position where they are highly amenable and very capable of intellectual production, particularly novel social theories—often with a moralistic aspect; but they also have a mission to raise up the oppressed: Judaism is a story of a people who came up from slavery, and Marxism is obviously a secularised account of Jewish history.
There is no need to suggest a conspiracy here; it is just what happens when a talent that was evolved to interpret a religious text becomes disconnected from its settting in modernity. Jews with abilities in mathematics and the sciences show less interest in “the intellectual” stance, with their minds presumably less attuned to verbal thought. Further, the Jews are more tribal than many Gentile racial groups; it is a cliché that a Jewish person will always “have someone in mind” for a job—yet it is true; it is part of how they survived as a people for centuries. Combine this network ability with the attitude of a secular intellectual entrepreneur and the result is that the Jews will be disproportionate contributors to left-wing ideas, not through conscious coordination or because they all agree with each other but because that is how it pans out when these skills and abilities are left to work in a secular environment. Given that these characteristics also incline secular Jews towards success in the media, a nexus develops between the deeper intellectuals and Jewish journalists, basically simpatico as to the social issues and direction of the age—if in fierce disagreement over particulars.
An unspoken element of political debates in the West is the contribution of Jewish intellectuals to left-wing ideas; and this is so for obvious reasons, given what happened in National Socialist Germany when Hitler blamed the Jews for Germany’s woes. Conservatives are keen to talk about the deleterious effect of “postmodernism” on the West, whereas the radical right talks about “cultural Marxism”. The former contains figures, such as Foucault and Deleuze, who were not Jewish, whereas “cultural Marxism” is almost exclusively the product of Jewish intellectuals—save Antonio Gramsci; though he is really the grandfather of the basic idea of a cultural turn in Marxism, he is not as sophisticated as the high theorists Adorno and Marcuse.
However, within postmodernism conservatives really have an issue with Derrida above all; it was Derrida who questioned “bivalent ontologies” (man/woman; good/evil; heterosexual/homosexual), i.e. the moral fabric of the West. When conservatives complain about “postmodernism” this is what they mean; particularly with regards to “moral relativism”. Foucault, though his name crops up more often, is more uncertain; his Nietzschean inspirations, fascination with death, and interest in power have rightward tendencies. Derrida was Jewish, so there is a certain ambiguity here and unease when conservatives bring up postmodernism as well.
The intelligence level of intellectuals varies: Russell and Chomsky, brilliant; Žižek and Marx, extremely bright; Ibram X. Kendi and Tom Paine, just above average. Yet intelligence as such does not matter, the intellectual is always above average but not necessarily spectacularly so: what really matters is what kind of a show he can put on for the audience. Take Žižek, he caters to graduates—especially people with postgraduate degrees—who want to feel clever; he flatters their intelligence with a combination of Lacan and Die Hard. Everyone understands Die Hard, not everyone understands Lacan; yet the reader or participant in his shows goes away with the sense they have learned something, a small act of intellectual narcissism. Žižek also includes risqué references to “the inner greatness of Stalinism”, so his readers feel that they have participated in a transgressive act—an intellectual black mass.
Intellectuals are often mistaken for “the genius”, but it is easy to tell the two apart. An intellectual knows how to name-drop and they always have a “hot take” for the day on almost any given social issue; they have very definite social aims. They lack the modesty and independence of the real scientist, artist, or rigorous thinker. If confronted by the names Wittgenstein and Heidegger, the intellectual falls silent; neither man produced a set of ideas that can easily be spun into a simple viewpoint or homily, so the intellectual falls back on biographical information: Heidegger was a Nazi and had an affair, Wittgenstein was homosexual and he played “language games”. Intellectuals are also allergic to physical science, a field too precise to be easily reduced to a universal explanation and means to mobilise the masses.
The genius, by contrast, is characterised by a difficult—possibly autistic—personality; the autistically inclined person has little sense of social relations and so has little need for social affirmation or societal mission. In anthropology, for example, Napoleon Chagnon, a man who demonstrated through genetics and Darwinian theory that sexual competition caused most violence in remote South American tribal groups, was the autistic type; his rivals, who saw him as an evil imperialist oppressor, were often disciples of the intellectual and social theories of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.
Of course, there are men from the sciences who choose to become intellectuals, the figure of Richard Dawkins is a useful example; but yet again, his work as a populariser of science and a militant atheist has little to do with the academic world he worked in. As an atheist, he—along with Christopher Hitchens—replicated the same rhetoric and arguments that had been presented in the 18th century, now garnished with Darwin; but, as already noted, there is one born every minute for intellectual rhetoric and so they found an audience. At any rate, Dawkins made an exit from science; and he is, as described by Yarvin, a follower of a secular religion—though he does not know it. At an even less sophisticated level, men like Sam Harris play on the scientism of Western society—our quasi-religious relationship to science and technology—to patronise anyone who disagrees with their effectively ideological crusade against traditional religion.
I have mentioned superstars so far, but the intellectuals really encompass a wider field. The think tanks provide dozens of semi-intellectuals—people who might sell a few thousand books and never reach the Dawkins or Hitchens level of fame; we know them as “the policy wonks”. Yet even these humble workers play a part in the maelstrom, they form the expert class that journalists rely on for quotes and research papers; and so they feed the great beast, in their own modest way.
The man who works in a defence think tank, author of the paper, “Shakedown 2025: the maritime battlespace in the Crimea”, may think himself totally different from the “woke freaks”, from the girl with a postgraduate degree in Cultural Studies who works for the Social Public Policy Initiative and authors papers entitled, “Women who cut themselves: hair, self-harm, and ethnicity in inner London”; but, in fact, they are two inhabitants of the same pond—the conservative’s conclusions about defence (we never say war, of course) are usually as delusional as the progressive girl’s conclusions about women in inner London. Again, this whole world has nothing to do with the universities—or is only incidentally connected, and is often, in fact, funded by private business or foundations or directly by the state.
Once again, Marx and Engels set the pattern. Marx’s work was not funded by, as some would have it, an international cabal of Jewish bankers; it was funded by the decidedly Germanic textile company Ermen and Engels; at which Friedrich worked for many years, ready to float the unemployed Marx the ready goods as required—which was often. In addition, Engels helped Marx with his mathematics and corrected his knowledge of bookkeeping—a skill, as a factory owner and operator, Engels actually knew, as opposed to the economic theoretician Marx, with his sketchy grasp of factory life. This was a personal friendship and an ideological commitment, but the basic pattern remains today: private industry often pays for intellectuals to develop ideas that will, eventually, destroy those businesses—if not millions of people.
It should now be apparent to you why conservatives blame the universities for the rise of “woke insanity”. Who tells you that? Journalists, for the most part; and where do they get that idea? From the intellectuals. In the 1980s it was, say, Allan Bloom; and in the early 1990s it was Camille Paglia. What are these people? Intellectuals. The Closing of the American Mind and Sexual Personae are not scholarly works; they were aimed at a mass educated audience. The prescriptions offered to combat leftism by Paglia and Bloom and others include the preservation of classic books and a return to the real spirt of ’68 feminism. It is impossible for intellectuals to see that the problem might be people like them; even when they have moved to the right and realised there is a problem. Sometimes, they will lament the decline of the “public intellectual”, an American idea from forty years ago—all they lament is a time when certain writers and thinkers were flattered and preened on talk shows.
Yes, there are people who call themselves “right-wing intellectuals”—almost an oxymoron—and yet they suffer from the same delusions as the leftist intellectuals they claim to combat; usually they live and feed from the same social networks, attend the same parties and—you would not believe how squalid this really is—sleep with the same people; anything for a book review in The Times, sweetheart. The natural habitat of the intellectual is the salon, a gathering of like minds—although no intellectual would be so socially retarded as to say they attended a salon in 2021, salons still exist; basically, these are parties—no territory for the quasi-autistic genius. From this intense socialisation, a bitchy and febrile atmosphere, intellectual theories are generated and popularised. The intellectual is always ready to form a committee, publish a manifesto, sign a joint letter—shit-stir, essentially; and, of course, to expel dissenters and dissidents, a hallmark of the left.
The intellectual is someone who has given up the organic coordination of family and religion in exchange for an idea—an artificial form of coordination that must be backed by punishments and expulsion, since blood and tradition do not sustain it. Hence even “right-wing” thinkers and ideas, like fascism and nationalism, are developed by intellectuals—the radical rightist Evola believed he was organic in his thought and at the most extreme point of the right, but he valued “the idea” above all; he was an intellectual—Dadaist, at one time—and so not very right wing at all.
This is not a novel point, but the advent of YouTube, blogs, Twitter, and so on has expanded the category of the intellectual and paved the way for new wars of religion. A whole new group of people, previously too provincial or not connected to the “salon” networks, have been able to propagate ideas that are “intellectual” in nature: from dissident libertarians to ancient alien archaeologists to classical liberals and esoteric Duginists—anyone with an idea who can speak, let alone write, can have an audience; or a congregation, to be precise. The term “market place of ideas” is stale, yet that is what has reanimated thanks to social media; previously, the market was somewhat rigged in favour of think tanks, professional intellectuals, and similar. Now anybody can have a go, and, as in the age of Gutenberg, the wars of religion are fuelled by the entry of novel intellectual entrepreneurs. We are now in this age; and this has been my contribution.